Monthly Archives: May 2014

Like Ruth, I’m an Immigrant

shutterstock_171174860I am an immigrant to the United States. I am the holder of a green card—the documentation that gives me the status of “permanent resident.” I arrived at this status by way of a J1 visa (to enable me to work at a Jewish summer camp for a season), an F1 visa (a 1 year visa when I came to Hebrew Union College as a visiting student), then another J1 visa (another summer at camp), then another F1 visa (because I had transferred my rabbinic studies from the UK to the USA), and then two R1 visas (temporary religious worker visa—one needs to hold this and have a minimum of two years unbroken employment before one can begin the green card application; most people need to apply for two rounds, otherwise their authorization to work will run out before their green card has been processed).

That’s seven rounds of paperwork, lawyers fees and application fees. The cost was around $15000. And I’m one of the lucky ones. As a rabbi, congregations who needed not just “a rabbi,” but a rabbi that was a good match for their community, could present the need for my presence in the U.S. much more precisely than is the case in many other lines of work.

You might think that, after such a complex and drawn-out process (9 years in total), I would not be pleased at the thought that others were living and working here entirely undocumented. You might think that I would not be supportive of their hopes that a path to citizenship be attainable without having to go through the process that I so diligently observed.

But you’d be wrong.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the means, the language skills, and the communal support, to do all that I did and wait my turn. I cannot fathom how someone crossing the border from Mexico, hoping to make a little money on a tomato or orange farm to send back to family, could possibly navigate or afford what I did. I cannot imagine a woman, arriving under the guise of a tourist, but then remaining to avoid the sexual assaults she suffered in her native land, and now working nights cleaning offices, could gather the means to do as I did.

Next week is the festival of Shavuot. There are many themes in the Book of Ruth, traditionally read at this time, but it is not difficult to find the story of an immigrant in this book, and all that is gained when the stranger is greeted with compassion and provided with the opportunity to make a life and contribute positively to a society, instead of hiding in the shadows.

As Rabbi Natan Levy recalls from that story, on the Times of Israel blog,

“…and Boaz watched the strange Moabite women in his field, and he says to his reapers:  Leave her unmolested, and to his harvesters: Leave her a few extra sheaves of barley, and to his servants: Draw the well-water for her when she comes  out of the heat of the  Israeli summer.  And when Ruth understands these things she turns to Boaz and asks a question: “How could I have  found grace in your eyes that you should recognize me (l’hakireni)—Yet I am foreign (nokhriya).” (Ruth 2:10)”

Rabbi Levy, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, goes on to note that the word meaning “to recognize” (to grant rights and privileges) has the same Hebrew root as “to be a stranger/foreigner.”  He says, “A single Hebrew word spans the spectrum of human interaction between recognition and estrangement, compassion and indifference.”

I am no expert on precisely what form new legislation to provide immigration reform should take. But on one thing I am clear. Jewish wisdom, paired with our own experiences of being the stranger, seeking a safe haven from oppression, demands compassion from us when we consider those who seek opportunity or safety among us. That is why I stand with the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism, in supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Drawing from a liturgy created especially for this Shavuot to reflect on this issue, we are reminded of a midrash on the Book of Ruth:

And why was the Scroll of Ruth written?
Rabbi Ze’ira says: “To teach [us] of a magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense chesed/loving kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:15).

Hear now the voices of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz:

I am Ruth.

With beloved family I came to a new country. I worked hard, determined to create a better life for myself and my loved ones. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans strengthening this country through the work of their hands and the love of their families. On this Shavuot, please stand with me in recognition of the dreams of so many.
We are all Ruth.

I am Naomi.

I fled tragedy in one country to come to another filled with promise…only to be rejected—my dreams dashed against unthinkable challenges. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans facing the fear of deportation, a promising future turned bitter. On this Shavuot, please stand with me as we turn dreams sweet once again.
We are all Naomi.

I am Boaz.

I recognized those toiling in dark shadows in the corners of the field. I used my power to bring light to lives burdened by daunting trials. Today, I would like to see my experience reflected in the lives of many more American working to change current policies that keep bright futures dim. On this Shavuot, please stand with me to welcome those toiling in the corners of this country.

We are all Boaz.

On this Shavuot, we stand with Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth.  (liturgy extracted from the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Initiative of The RAC).

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Posted on May 28, 2014

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An Israel Parade for All Who Love Israel

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parade2On June 1, tens of thousands of Jews will flock on 5th Avenue to participate in the 50th annual Celebrate Israel Parade. This year, perhaps more than ever, this is a parade not to be missed.

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York is the organizer of the parade. In recent years, the parade has been marked by controversy because of the participation of left-wing groups such as B’tselem and the New Israel Fund that some on the right viewed as insufficiently pro-Israel.

In an effort to thwart conflict this year and affirm that everyone who participates in the parade is, in fact, celebrating Israel, the JCRC had all groups who are marching sign a pledge that they “support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” and will not include “political, divisive or inflammatory” statements on their banners or other marching props. One might think that this pledge would be enough to make everyone feel comfortable that all those participating in the parade are supporters of a Jewish and democratic Israel. From my perspective, this is a valiant effort by the JCRC to adopt a big-tent approach to pro-Israel engagement.

Sadly, though, in this era of internecine squabbling, the pledge is insufficient to some right-wing Israel supporters. Critics of the New Israel Fund and other progressive Zionist organizations are pulling out of the parade and planning to protest these groups’ participation.  For example, Rabbi Elie Abadie of the Upper East Side’s Edmond J. Safra Synagogue penned an open letter in which he wrote that his congregation will abstain from marching unless these progressive groups are disqualified from participating. JCC Watch already organized a protest outside the NY Federation.  Another rabbi recently equated the JCRC’s big tent approach with Nazi appeasement.

The problem for these folks is that the progressive Zionist organizations have, in the past, had ties to organizations that support the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) Movement which seeks to inflict diplomatic and economic punishment on Israel. So even though organizations like the New Israel Fund themselves are opposed to BDS, the claim is that they nevertheless should be ostracized from pro-Israel gatherings because of their past associations.

Israel has enough actual enemies without having to imagine new ones. From the threat of a nuclear Iran to the consequences of another failed peace effort between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel needs as much positive support as possible. When organizations are willing to sign a pledge saying that they support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, I say, dayeinu. Israel is big enough to include those on the left and the right among its supporters. So let’s put aside the sinat hinam (internal discord) and march together this June 1st, signifying through our words and our actions that both the left and the right can and should embrace Israel.

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Posted on May 27, 2014

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Does Interfaith Dialogue Work?

1024px-Concert_"Flamenco_et_Soufisme"_(IMA)_(4431396219)I ask this question often, in one form or another. And often, people answer with a cynical “No.”

A business leader exclaimed: “How can groups of different religions dialogue, when denominations within the same religion won’t talk to each other!”

A good will ambassador said sadly: “I’ve been attacked many times for my views.”

An activist declared: “Talking about our views and doing nothing together is a waste of time.”

A rabbi complained: “Usually, we just talk about our commonalities, and gloss over the important differences.”

A Holocaust survivor said with a heavy heart:  “The ones who want to dialogue aren’t the ones we need to worry about.”

Call me idealistic, but I think interfaith dialogue can save lives. My favorite example comes from the memoir of Zivia Lubetkin, the only woman on the command staff of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 1940, Lubetkin and fellow youth leaders took in the orphaned teens arriving in the Warsaw ghetto. In response to dehumanization of Jews, they organized underground schools for their teens. In response to scarcity, they organized work permits. When scarcity progressed to starvation, they put the teens to work in soup kitchens. When they learned of the death camps, they armed the teens, fought alongside them, and helped survivors escape. At every step on the way, they worked with contacts outside the ghetto: their friends from interfaith summer camp.

Why am I so idealistic when others are so cynical? Why do I hold out high hopes when others lose faith in dialogue? Perhaps it’s partly my open-ended view of what counts as interfaith “dialogue.” Dialogue is conversation, communication, an exchange of speech. Speech comes in many forms, some nonverbal; communication can come simply through shared experience.

Reflecting on the many modes of dialogue, I am reminded of the Kabbalistic concept of four worlds of consciousness. Simultaneously, we live in worlds of action, feeling, thought, and being. Under the rubric of interfaith dialogue, I have participated in projects touching all four worlds.

In the world of action, Ahavat Olam, a Vancouver havurah, has organized a Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry project. Together, Jews and Muslims serve meals at a Christian-sponsored homeless shelter. Discussion of religious differences is not the point. Instead, participants focus on the familiar comfort of working with the same people month after month. Communication about shared values happens in the doing.

In the world of feeling, our regional Christian seminary, Vancouver School of Theology, hosts an annual concert “Musical and Sonic Landscapes in Islam.” Contemporary Islamic composers lead the students in exploring the role of sound in spirituality. Students move, sing, speak – and are surprised by their own confusion, laughter, and mixed feelings. Emotions are aroused, and their meanings discussed. Music communicates by stimulating emotion, which in turn stimulates conversation. This, too, is dialogue.

In the world of intellect, the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community organizes interfaith dialogue panel discussions. Religious teachers and leaders representing Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist groups speak to a deep existential question, such as “How does my religious tradition address suffering?” During the Q & A that follows, attendees ask questions in the language of their own tradition. Sometimes this mismatch of language is strikingly odd, requiring presenters to re-frame teachings most familiar to them. This awkward conversation, too, is dialogue; thoughts are stimulated, and curiosities sparked.

In the world of being, the Vancouver Multi-Faith action society recently hosted an ecstatic “Sacred Earth Celebration.” This interfaith service raised awareness about a shared human concern: the health of our planet. Its intent was not, like so many interfaith services, to declare each community’s commitment or show how each community prays. It was to unite us for an evening into a single community, brought to heightened awareness through music, poetry, images and food. No information about different religious traditions was shared, though elements of all were woven into the service. Just being together in altered consciousness was a kind of soul-to-communication; this, too, was interfaith dialogue.

I agree with the cynics, just a little bit: if you try to reach people by speaking only to one dimension of their experience, you may well find ill-will, ignorance, inaction, fear and disunity. But if you reach out on every level, sharing action, feeling, thoughts and being—as many youth do at summer camp—you just might find one harmonic convergence that grows into a reliable connection.

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Posted on May 26, 2014

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To Minsk on a Prayer

“Eastern Europe’s outcast, Belarus lies at the edge of the region and seems determined to avoid integration with the rest of the continent at all costs. Taking its lead from the Soviet Union rather than the European Union, this pint-sized dictatorship may seem like a strange choice for travelers.”
Lonely Planet: Eastern Europe

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I am going to Minsk. It is a strange choice indeed. All I keep thinking in my head is, “didn’t our people work hard to get out of there?” More than that, my great grandmother was taken there against her will. Brought by train to a forest and along with thousands of other cultured, educated, Viennese Jews she was shot.

So why the heck would I choose to go there voluntarily?

I keep telling myself it is to honor and support my mother, who wants to honor her grandmother.

All of this is true. I do want to honor and support my mother and honor my great grandmother.

But this still feels a bit crazy.

I grew up breathing the Holocaust. It was a topic spoken of at almost every meal. Hitler’s Mein Kampf sat on the bookshelf right outside my door. For years I suffered from nightmares that I was being deported. I found my own way to deal with the pain in my family and our community. I eschewed all things Holocaust. I did not read books that were not assigned reading. I did not see Schindler’s List. Even as I pursued a PhD. In Jewish history, I chose to focus on the lives of German speaking Jews until 1914. I actively chose to remember those who were murdered as they lived and not only as the victims Hitler wanted them to be.

I am filled with trepidation. Clearly this will not be a fun trip. In addition to the guidebook description, we have been told to bring bug repellant and raingear to manage the swampy conditions we may encounter. One cannot visit Belarus without getting a visa which is obtained through a complex and archaic process.

You have to be part of an organized tour or work program. And very clear limits on the duration must be set in advance. So we are heading on a four day trip that heads out from Austria, my grandmother’s birthplace. The trip is organized by an Austrian woman named Waltraud Barton who is not Jewish. She dedicates her time to placing markers on the graves or former homes of Jews deported from Austria. My mother connected with her last year when she and my children dedicated a tripping stone outside the home from which my great-grandmother was deported. Waltraud is bringing a group of like-minded Austrian with her. My parents and I will be the only non-Europeans. While we will meet briefly with the Reform rabbi of Minsk, we will be the only Jews for most of the journey. I am bringing a tallit and yizkor candles. The entire tour will be conducted in German and my language skills will be stretched to their limits. My borders, rabbinic and otherwise will be pushed.

I do not know what remembering the Holocaust will look like for the coming generations. In my work on global Judaism with Be’chol Lashon I often teach about the expulsion from Spain which like the Holocaust displaced a whole community, destroying physically and spiritually much of the core. Yet centuries later it is often relegated to a footnote in history.

I do not worry that the Holocaust will have the same fate. In our modern era we have done well recording and memorializing the atrocities perpetrated by everyday people against Jews in Europe. But the process of remembering forward the collective loss is a collective responsibility. When I was younger, I was content to leave that responsibility of remembering the horrors to others but now, as my parents age, and the generation that knew the Holocaust first hand is disappearing, my sense of obligation is changing.

I honestly don’t know what that means exactly. I am trained as a historian but there are some things that cannot be reasoned from an armchair. I suspect that going to this place which on so many levels repels me will help me better understand what I think and feel. In general, we are taught to set out expectations and proceed towards goals. But this is different. This trip is an act of faith, faith that it will be all right in the moment, faith that emotionally I will be able to grapple with what I encounter, faith that this is not really a crazy thing to do, faith that meaning will be illuminated. Somewhere beyond reason, I believe that this trip is the right thing to do.

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Posted on May 22, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What is a Community?

community-prayerA few days ago, I ran across an article asking a rabbi what a person could do instead of going to shul to say kaddish. The person in question wasn’t bed-bound—he just didn’t like going to shul.

It’s a difficult question for a rabbi to deal with—although the author of this article did pretty well- because it’s difficult to know what the real underlying question is: Why doesn’t this person like going to shul—is it because he doesn’t know the meaning of the words he is saying? Is it because he draws no comfort from attending a service with people he doesn’t know? Is it because he is unfamiliar with the service?

Similarly, there are many people who are beginning to ask themselves if a minyan could be made online? These don’t seem like related questions, but they are, in that they come from a place where we are unfamiliar with our communities—we no longer need to fear friendship with non-Jews, but in doing so, many of us have failed to develop relationships with our own family, our own tradition – and then, when we seek comfort from it, we find it alien.

I wonder what the boundaries are for our ability to Jewish when we are not face-to-face. Going to shul is such an important part of being in the Jewish community—even for those who don’t love prayer, or don’t understand it well. And what, also, do we say to the person who doesn’t like shul: of course we hope they’ll connect in other ways, but it seems wrong to simply let the person give up on one of the ways we have to directly connect with one another—people we may have nothing in common with, other than being there for each other at a difficult time. And what of the idea that perhaps it isn’t only about you—that it is for others—God, our people, the deceased—that we do these things?

The internet sometimes gets proposed as a solution to this (and related) problems. But even if we set aside the problem of using electronic networks on Shabbat and other restrictive days, how much benefit to us as individuals or as a people could there be in a connection which never demands anything of us (because, for example, how can you bring food to the mourning community member who lives more than a day’s drive away?), and what happens to the idea of a people, even?

And yet, I do think that there is something to be gained from an internet community. I do see how it has enabled me to reconnect with people far from me and stay connected to people I might not otherwise stay connected with, even if it is not the same as the relationships I have with the people who are right here, next door.

What do you think those limitations are? Can we build true Jewish communities online?

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Posted on May 21, 2014

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Our Girls, the 1 in 5 and the 250

How the United States responds to the kidnapped Nigerian girls and the epidemic of rape on the college campus will define for a generation just how equal women really are.

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Important things are being learned in our colleges, but I’ve still been referring to college as “four-year summer camp with no counselors, for smart kids.” Throughout our culture, for about 40 years or more, we’ve portrayed these years as the pinnacle of freedom. Before college, there is mom and dad, and afterwards, there will be a spouse, and kids, or at least a boss. In that sweet spot of the college years, we have a rare chance to just “live and become.” It turns out, left to their own devices, college kids have enabled a deep rape culture. 1 in 5 women are victims of sexual assault in college. Most students, men and women, are guilty of bystander apathy, or lack of knowing how to intervene rather than assault. Meanwhile, there is small group of repeat offenders whose behavior goes unchecked.

250 schoolgirls in Nigeria have been kidnapped. Their captors, the Boko Haram (may their names be erased), have said that the girls would be sold in the market unless their imprisoned “brethren” are freed. As soon as the world heard this, we were all outraged. The President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, originally brushed the news aside, waiting an outrageous 3 weeks before reporting this atrocity.

I have four sons, and no biological daughters, but each year I graduate about 100 high schoolers. I am thankful that my part-time daughters do not live in Africa where the wars between tribes, religious or politically defined, have made women’s bodies as much the battlefield as any parcel of land. No, my girls are headed to college. So, I still worry.

White House

From the White House Report (click to link)

1 in 5. This was the finding of the White House Special Task Force. Soon after the publishing of the report there was grousing about the numbers. “The definition of assault is too narrow.” “The study was too small.” “Not every drunken hook up counts as sex.” I am embarrassed about a country that can so easily shift the conversation of sexual violence of epidemic proportions to just another political finger pointing game. This is the United States, not Nigeria.

“In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” – A.J. Heschel.

In one of the most horrific stories in the Bible, and yes, there are many to choose from, a woman is raped by “a depraved lot.” She walked back home in the light of day and collapsed dead at the door of the home where she and her husband had been staying. Her husband took her body and quickly continued his trip home, to safety. In agony, and in contempt for the society that would tolerate the actions of the depraved men who raped his wife, he sent a piece of her dead body to each of the 12 tribes. “And everyone who saw it cried out, ‘never has such a thing happened or been seen from the day the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt to this day! Direct your hearts to this! Take counsel and decide.” (Judges 19:22-30).

The story is gruesome, and unbelievably, the above paraphrased version holds back some of ugliest details. I wish that we could just dismiss this grotesque story under the heading of “the Bible contains some outlandish stories,” but what to do with today’s epidemic of rape? Silence has signaled tacit acceptance of the culture of rape in our colleges, not to mention our military. This indifference threatens the fabric of our society; it hurts our boys as well as our girls. This ancient problem has not gone away. 250 kidnapped girls in Nigeria. 1 in 5 US college women. “Direct your hearts. Take counsel and decide” just what kind of a society do we want to be.

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Posted on May 20, 2014

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Are You Bossy, Pushy, or Executive Leadership Material? Take This Quiz to Find Out!

Eve1. Do you have strong ideas and opinions?a. Yes
b. No

2. Do you share these ideas with others?
a. Yes
b. No

3. Do you expect other people to live up to your high expectations of them?
a. Yes
b. No

4. Do you command attention when you enter a room?
a. Yes
b. No

If you are male and answered “a” to all of the questions above, then you have executive potential. If you are female and answered “a” to the above questions, then you are bossy and pushy. If you manage to reach the top of your field in spite of these character flaws, then expect to be reviled.

This is what we have learned from the ouster of the Executive Editors Jill Abramson from The New York Times and Natalie Nougayrède of the French paper Le Monde this week.

Because she was “the first woman” she is de facto a leader. Her curiosity and thorough investigation of the world she lived in served her well to be a leader of early humankind. But it was these very same traits that caused her downfall. She was too curious; she bit the fruit from the tree of knowledge, and convinced her husband, Adam to do the same. Since then people have been suspect of women’s leadership. Eve led humanity in to a world filled with suffering, pain and disease.Women in leadership positions have always had to walk a fine line. They need to be smart enough, and confident enough to assume a leadership position, but not appear to pushy, bossy, or aggressive. Gender bias is alive and well in 2014, and we have Eve to thank for this. Yes, Eve, the first woman mentioned in the Bible.

How do we undo the damage taught by this story for thousands of generations?

It deeply pains me to love Judaism so much, to love the stories in the Bible, and the artful way rabbis debate laws in the Talmud when this amazing tradition is inherently misogynistic. We have come a long way in both the larger Western culture and the liberal Jewish world to recognize that women can be leaders in a variety of secular and religious positions. Yet, female leaders are still seen as somewhat suspect.

I think this will always be the case until we stop teaching the story of Eve the way we do. Instead of casting Eve as the one who leads humanity in to suffering, why not teach the beauty of curiosity – how sometimes it leads to good things and sometimes to bad? Why not stress that God wanted Eve to eat of the apple. For God put the tree there in the first place and imbued humans with curiosity. By eating the fruit, Eve was living up to her highest potential; in the end she opened the door to all of human ingenuity and progress. Isn’t that a good leader’s job, to help propel things forward?

I love the characters of the Bible because they are all flawed human beings, just like us. However, when a story portrays a gender stereotype that has been passed down for generations and has been woven in to the very fabric of culture after culture, it is time to tell a different story.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 16, 2014

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Why We Love “Throwback Thursday”

keep-calm-its-time-for-throwback-thursday-1Every Thursday, my Facebook feed is filled with old pictures, stories of favorite memories, and statuses that remind people of “where they were X years ago.” Why? Because they all end with the hashtag “#tbt”—a way for people to recall memories on “Throwback Thursday.”

But why do we love “Throwback Thursday?”

Clearly, when we go through our old pictures or think back on events we experienced, we feel a wonderful sense of nostalgia—a warm, fuzzy feeling. But that just pushes the question one level back: why do we feel nostalgia? What value does does nostalgia have?

It’s actually a very nuanced question. The value of simple memory is very easy to explain, especially for evolutionary reasons. If, on the African savanna, you could remember who in your tribe had helped you take down that mastodon, or which berries had made you sick when you ate them, or where that saber-tooth tiger tended to live, you would clearly have an competitive advantage over others.

But it’s harder to understand why we would want to use memories to evoke certain feelings. especially because nostalgia is often very bittersweet. We smile when we remember a poignant memory, and at the same time, there’s some sadness as we realize that that moment from the past can’t ever be replicated.

Yet it turns out that there is some research that suggests that those feelings of nostalgia can make us better people. As John Tierney explains in a piece in the New York Times, “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”

Nostalgia, in other words, helps us connect to ourselves and to others. As Dr. Constantine Sedikides, one of the pioneers in this field, remarked: “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”

So if that’s what nostalgia truly is about, then Judaism is very much about nostalgia. We see our child become bar or bat mitzvah, and we see the past, present and future mixed together. We smell the brisket our grandmother used to make on Passover, and it brings us back to our childhood seders. We join a synagogue community and build relationships and memories that sustain us.

So “Throwback Thursday” is a perfect avenue for Judaism. It connects us to our friends and our family. It roots us. And it makes us smile.

Because in the end, our memories are what make us who we are. When we recall our fondest memories, we end up strengthening our sense of self.

And that’s why we love “Throwback Thursday”—it not only lets us relive the past, it truly helps us live in the present and get ready for the future.

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Posted on May 15, 2014

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Can We Talk About Israel?

shutterstock_188742710A week after we celebrated the 66th anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel, I’ve been reflecting on how we talk about Israel in our communities. At the beginning of the month the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted against accepting the membership of J-Street into the Conference (see Gary Rosenblatt’s editorial in The Jewish Week for a good summary of this story). With the announcement of a new alliance between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, hope has considerably waned that the recent round of peace talks with Israel will amount to any new breakthroughs. Some have expressed the belief that this is the direct result of Netanyahu’s stance during the talks. The blame game has begun. It is easy to feel somewhat demoralized by all this and frustrated when it comes to talking about Israel.

And yet, at the same time this past week one of our congregants, a member of the Board of Directors of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressed our congregation after recently returning from a remarkable trip led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, where they had the opportunity to meet with and speak with leaders in government, the Israel Religious Action Center, observe the growth and development of Reform Judaism in Israel, and meet with Palestinian businessmen in addition to Israeli leaders in the business and innovation world. He returned hopeful and inspired, and he inspired all who heard him speak. Our congregation is planning on a community trip to Israel next year, and people are eager to go.

Last night, in my final class of the semester with our 11th and 12th grade students, we explored a range of Jewish values from Rabbi Goldie Milgram’s “Mitzvah Cards” and I asked students to choose ones that they felt they already ‘carried with them’ and ones that were challenging to them. One of those challenge cards was Israel. A student conveyed something that I remember feeling so strongly myself as I entered my first year of college—a sense of struggle and frustration that sometimes a thoughtful and critical engagement with Israel was silenced within Jewish settings.

I remember attending an event run by the Hillel at my college during the first Gulf War. Scud missiles were being sent Israel’s way. It was a scary time for the population of Israel. Gas masks had been widely distributed. There was no question that we would be praying for the safety of all in Israel. In the midst of an informational session one student stood up to contribute to a discussion about Israel to express his hope that, even in the midst of a time when we needed to stand by Israel and pray for its safety, we wouldn’t lose sight of other issues regarding the peace process or equality within Israel that were also important to talk about in a Jewish setting on campus. He was literally shouted down—how dare he even ask the question at a time like this!

I have a visceral memory of my internal reaction to witnessing that moment. I wanted no part of it. I cared deeply about Israel and its future and its safety. And at the same time I found the culture that squashed thoughtful and caring debate and discussion about all aspects of life in Israel to be enormously unhelpful. That was 25 years ago—no wonder that J-Street has 180,000 supporters and 50 chapters on campus. You may not agree with them, but they exist because there was insufficient room within previously existing organizations for those who wanted to engage more fully with all dimensions of Israel.

Let me be clear—I’m not writing this to express personal support of any one organization or perspective. Rather, I plead for Jewish community to be a place where we can lovingly and respectfully engage with the fullness of Israel. Like my country of origin—the UK—or my country of residence—the USA—there are things that make me feel extraordinarily proud, and there are things that sometimes happen that cause me to feel embarrassment or disappointment. Israel has to be experienced—it is an amazing place. The people are as diverse in background and opinion as any other place. There is so much to learn there. The innovation in science, technology, agriculture, and more is breathtaking. A country that is only 66 years young has developed politically, socially and economically in remarkable ways. And it is still finding its way in some areas—religious pluralism, equality, the place of minority groups in a country that is still fighting for the right to define itself as a Jewish homeland.

What we don’t need is propaganda. We don’t need trips to Israel that pull the blinders over the breadth and complexity of a fully realized, living, breathing modern nation state. We don’t need to silence each other. I do not pretend to offer expertise on the complexities of the political situation and the peace process. It is my job to listen and learn, and to facilitate conversation. It is my job to point out where I observe insightful analysis and information being shared, and where I see ideological lines being drawn in the sand that ultimately help no one. And it is my job to help my student, as she goes off to college, know that there are people and places where she can engage with the fullness of all that Israel is and may still come to be, without feeling shamed or silenced.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 14, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

To Snip Or Not To Snip? Why I Say “Yes” To Circumcision!

Through Jan. 23, 2011 044To snip or not to snip? That, apparently, is becoming a major question for some 21st-century American Jews.

I have to confess that of all the issues confronting Jews today, I never thought circumcision would be controversial. But it has become so, as a growing number of “intactivists” have raised the profile of being vocally anti-circumcision. I write today not to challenge the Jewish bona fides of those who are not circumcised, nor to condemn those who, after careful reflection, ultimately choose not to circumcise their boys. I write merely to respond to some of the primary claims made by the “intactivists” and to urge parents to make individual, informed decisions about circumcision that take into account circumcision’s deep, resonant connection with Jewish identity and peoplehood.

The biblical origins of the Jewish ritual of circumcision come from Genesis 17:

Then God said to Abraham, “You must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Gen. 17:9-14)

While Jews today vary in our levels of observance of the myriad mitzvot found in the Torah, the obligation to circumcise our male children has retained near-universal observance for thousands of years. Circumcision has become one of the most—if not the most—physical and cultural markers of Jewish identity. The ceremony that has been created around the process of brit milah “covenant via circumcision” ushers the young boy, and welcomes his family, into a powerful sense of community and tradition. I can attest to this personally as the father of two young boys (as well as a fantastic girl). When our sons were born, the question my wife and I had was not whether to circumcise them but how to find the “best” mohel and what kind of ceremony we wanted to construct around the act of circumcision. For us, the question of whether or not to circumcise them was a no-brainer.

So why are Alicia Silverstone and other young Jewish parents opposed to circumcision? Based on my review of many testimonials on the website beyondthebris.com, there seem to be a few recurring objections:

Informed Consent: Some anti-circumcision folks are opposed to the practice because of the lack of informed consent. According to this position, since a baby cannot consent to circumcision, we should refrain from doing so until the child comes of age and can make his own decision. My response to this is simple: part of being a parent is making decisions for one’s children based on what you think are the best interests of the child, whether or not the child consents. For example, we give babies vaccinations, which clearly hurt them, because we believe that the benefits of the vaccinations outweigh the harm. Based on the health benefits of circumcision (below), I see the consent issue of circumcision as pretty comparable.

Pain and Suffering: Many anti-circumcision advocates argue that we should stop circumcising because of the physical and psychological pain circumcision produces. Though they admit that circumcision reduces the risk of males acquiring HIV from infected female partners, they claim that this should only matter in areas of the world where HIV outbreaks remain severe. In America, they argue, the pain and suffering caused by circumcision mandates that we not circumcise. Putting aside my anecdotal experience (neither I nor my sons can recall, let alone feel traumatized by, our circumcisions), in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised their policy to state that circumcision’s positive health benefits outweigh the risks.

Since the last policy was published, scientific research shows clearer health benefits to the procedure than had previously been demonstrated. According to a systematic and critical review of the scientific literature, the health benefits of circumcision include lower risks of acquiring HIV, genital herpes, human papilloma virus and syphilis. Circumcision also lowers the risk of penile cancer over a lifetime; reduces the risk of cervical cancer in sexual partners, and lowers the risk of urinary tract infections in the first year of life.

When it comes to making medical decisions about my children, I trust the AAP.

Many bloggers also claim that circumcision should be rejected because it reduces sexual pleasure for men. This, too, recently was debunked in a landmark study.

Endorsing Imperfection. Finally, Alicia Silverstone, the Jewish actress and vegan activist, just came out with a book on parenting in which she expresses why she chose not to circumcise her son:

“[M]y thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”

My response is an unequivocal: “yes!” To assume that God made us physically and mentally perfect at birth not only belies reality, it also belies theology. If we already were perfect, what would be the point of our existence? The task of living, as I see it, it to try to improve our selves and the world around us, to partner with God rather than to expect God to take care of everything for us. Circumcision thus serves as an early reminder of our need to inject ourselves as parents into the crucial, if arduous, work of raising our children, of combining nurture with nature to guide our 8 day old boys into becoming the best men they can be.

As with all aspects of Jewish law, there are no absolutes when it comes to circumcision. In certain instances, such as where the health of the baby is at issue, circumcision should not be performed. Moreover, it is critical for rabbis and other Jewish leaders to explain the distinction between brit milah and Jewish status: a Jew is a Jew based on whether one’s mother (or, in Reform Judaism, mother or father) is a Jew, not based on whether or not one has been circumcised.  The absence of circumcision should never be used to impede one’s access to Judaism.

Brit milah has been a sacred act—both of Jewish peoplehood and of the intimate connection between God and parents in raising a child—for millennia, and, God willing, will continue to be for many millennia to come.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 13, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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